NORFOLK, Va. – 2021 marks 50 years of a big basketball tradition. The MEAC tournament is typically a big deal for business in Norfolk, but in a time that’s been anything but, the sporting event has almost gone unnoticed among some fans.
“Had no idea MEAC was going on this weekend,” said Kejdra Williams of Chesapeake.
Her friend, Maya Bivens of Norfolk, agreed.
“Usually, it would be on the radio, seen on the buses,” Bivens said.
“Billboards, everything,” added Williams. "I haven’t seen one thing about MEAC at all.”
The event has been an economic driver for Downtown Norfolk, with fans and out-of-towners flocking to sporting bars and filling up hotels near the Scope Arena. The COVID-19 crisis, however, has forced the MEAC tournament organizers to scale down the event.
State restrictions have capped seating inside the area at 250 people per game, putting a strain on businesses, including Baxter’s on Granby Street.
“It’s usually one of our best months of the year, and it’s going to be... it’s tight,” said Baxter’s General Manager Daryl Bresach.
Baxter’s is getting hit with a double whammy. Some customers walked out after realizing the smaller conferences weren’t being broadcast.
“They were looking to watch the game because they came down to go to the game, but couldn’t get in,” said Bresach. “They were looking to watch it on TV, but it wasn’t being offered because it wasn’t available. All the big conferences took over the TV networks.”
With no MEAC tickets being sold to the general public, hotels are also feeling the pinch.
The GM for Waterside Marriott, Jesse Hemphill, told News 3 that only 40 rooms are currently booked each day of four-day tournament, compared to about 200 rooms a night pre-pandemic that would generally bring in about $70,000.
“Any little bit of revenue helps, but this is another heartbreak of what the pandemic has done," Hemphill said.
In partnership with Visit Norfolk and Festevents, MEAC is hosting The MEAC 50th Anniversary Championship Watch Party to view Saturday’s championship game on a big screen in Town Point Park. The event quickly sold out.
“We wanted to still make sure it was celebrated and that we were doing our best to let people know this tournament is still happening even though it might look different than past years with COVID,” said Sarah Hughes, Visit Norfolk’s Director of Marketing and Communications.
Hughes said in 2019, the city saw an estimated $4.9 million economic boost during the four-day tournament.
The first-of-its-kind MEAC watch party won’t bring in anything close to that number, but Hughes said this year, it’s about bringing people together safely and in a way that's socially distanced.
“It’s a way for people still to be together and cheer on their team even though they can’t be at the Scope,” she said.
Spray-painted circles on the park’s lawn will keep people 10 feet apart, and hand sanitizer stations are placed throughout the area.
The outdoor event kicks off at noon. Several local organizations, including Visit Norfolk are planning other upcoming performing arts events outdoors.